Tuesday, August 31, 2010

31 aug 2010

I guess every farang in thailand writes this story, but nobody I know has read it before, so here goes: today I got my thai driver's license. It was both simple and byzantine, in a truly thai way. First of all, to get a thai license, you have to have some proof of where you live, in the form of a "house regisration" and a national ID card. But there is one problem: as a farang you can't have either of those. Almost Catch 22, but not quite. The first step, learned by some accident or other, I found out the US Embassy can give you a sworn notarized affidavit stating your local residence. That requires, in my case, a trip into BKK after making an appointment online. The US consulate (separate from the embassy) is a zoo. At any given moment there are 150 thais trying to get some kind of visa for the US. Citizens are helped separately, which makes it marginally faster, typically with about 2 dozen Americans waiting, mostly older, fattier and uglier than me. First you get a form, then you go to pay. The fee is US$50, payable in baht. As an Aussie acquaintance in the same situation pointed out, it is against Aussie and US law to refusw to take our national currencies, since the embassies are sovereign territory, but go tell that to Obama.
So having paid your $50 in baht, you wait some more, and finally they have you swear you are telling the truth and give you your document.
You now go and make aeveral copies of your passport ID pages and visa pages, your international driver's permit, and head for the thai DMV. Fortunately you don't have to go to Bangkok, so went to the local "DMV" in Ayutthaya. it's well organized and efficiently run, but that doesn't make it easy.
At the reception of the driver's license bureau, a very attractive lady (w her 2 year old daughter sitting next to her) did "triage", inspecting my documentation and declaring it all good except for my lack of a doctor's certificate of health. She recommended a nearby clinic, and kept my passportn telling me she would be responsible for it.
So off we went to the clinic. They took my passport number (I had another copy w me), and soon took me in to see the doctor. She lightly pressed a stethoscope on my chest for one second, and told me I was done. I got my form and went back to the DMV. It was now about 11 am. They returned my passport, having done nothing with it, and gave me a 1 pm appointment for the VERY comprehensive eye exam.
We killed the tinme in a nearby Tesco Lotus and went back. About 30 of us were ushered into a large room and asked to line up at the first station. It was an eyechart consisting of red yellow and green dots of different sizes, and they would point at sifferent dots and you had to say the color. This is probably funnier if you know I'm red/green colorblind. Somehow I passed. On to station two, the station of death. It's a test of your colo peripheral vision. You put you nose on a platformand look straight ahead. The examiner flashes red green and yellow lights on either side of your head at nearly 90 degrees. You needed to be a parrot to see it. I failed! But later I retested and either guessed right, or he took pity on me.
Stations three and four are together. First there are two rods and you have to move them until they are at the same depth from you. It's not hard. And built into the same machine is the test of your reaction time. You step on a gas pedal, and when the light turns red, you jam on the breaks, and can see fromna stream of lghts how fast you are. The first time I jammed the break so hard I shot it across the room. The second time my reaction time was excellent. So I passed.
Now downstairs where a clerk had no idea what to do w me and immediately called her supervisor who wanted to see my work permit. WeLl I don't have one, because I am not authorized to work in Thailand. Eventually she accepted the fact, and then was upset that the consulate hadn't given me my document in thai. However, she made herself feel better by asking me to make several additional copies elswehere in the building. Finally, she called me over, took my picture, extracted 100 baht for the pictur and 100 baht for the license, and in less than a minute my license was dome. By this time the cranky employees were smiling and looking at pictures of my daughter and asking me how I liked thailand. It was now about 2.30, but we were done. I have a 1 year license, which will be reissued for 5 years when I go through this rigamarole next year. So simple

Saturday, August 28, 2010

14 August

Those of you who knew our house in Alhambra know that across the street was a wall, the wall dividing us from the freeway. It was almost the wall that divided us from selling our house, as some people were afraid of freeway noise. It was a non-issue for us for 21 years.
And now we live across the street from a wall again. This wall divides us from... Nothing. Open fields and a forest a few hundred meters further up. The only noise is the birds, for the most part, the wind when it gets heavy, and the one car an hour that comes by, usually some workmen inside the community or security picking up/dropping off in their golf carts.
It just struck me, somehow, that we wound up with a wall again. We have a neighbor to our right, and 2 open plots next to us on the left, tho I think someone purchased them. Rumor (facts are hard to come by) has it that they will leave the plot closest to us as a garden, and build their house on the next plot. That will be good for us.
One more note: We have been defeated by rural transportation, or the lack thereof. It looks like we are going to have to buy a car.  It will make our lives much easier, if not simpler.   Oh well.

31 July

Well, now we're here "for real", and we got right into action. The second day we spent about 4 hours at HomePro. It's a kind of mix of the non-industrial parts of Home Depot w a good dose of IKEA and the home appliance dept of a large department store  thrown in. It's not equally strong at everything it undertakes, but it's a remarkable store. What makes it most remarkable are the employees. They are (sorry guys, the women more than the men) virtual encyclopedias of their areas.   Plus as we went from department to department, we had a retinue of employees following us.  The staffing is the opposite of US stores: you can ALWAYS find someone to help you. Actually, they'll find you. Not all stores are like this, but the service is usually excellent.   Everyone we dealt with there knew the answers.
And when we were done, since we had a rather complicated purchase, they sat us down at a table in the special orders department and plied us w water and coffee while waiting to figure everything out.
Okay, truth is, I would rather have been at a bookstore.

18 August 2010 Creepy story alert

There are certain notable moments in our lives that we usually don't forget. We don't remember our circumcision (well, you know who you are!), our first steps, proudly standing up and promptly whacking our heads on the coffee table. But we might well remember our first day at school, our first home run, goal, our first trip in an airplane, our first kiss.. okay that's enough.
One thing I never thought to remember happened a few hours ago.  I've spoken before of jingjoks, little lizards that love Thai houses. My friend Elsie from South Africa assures me they are geckos, but they don't look at all like the Geico mascot nor do they have Australian accents. Anyway, I don't know how they existed before people were here, because they love the inside walls of houses. I mistakenly thought that was limited to old Thai style wooden houses, fairly open to the elements. Well it turns out they like stone, brick and plaster just fine. They are by no means a plague, but occasionally you'll encounter one in the house, from less than an inch long up to 6 inches.
While they have some kind of suction to hang onto walls and even ceilings, occasionally they get distracted, or sweaty, or somehow lose their grip. This seems to embarrass them and as for us, well...  Today at our friends house, where we still have our food (fridge coming Monday), I was closing the front door from the inside when something bounced off my head, shoulder and the floor, scampering away, all 5 inches of him/her. Only one of us screamed.
Actually, I didn't mind, since they are totally harmless (not to insects), my only concern that he/she had not shat on my head. In fact he hadn't, so, no harm no foul. They crap in neat little cylinders. Fortunately there are none on our floor, so there will be no picture.
At any rate, it was an experience neither "Jimmy" nor I will soon forget.

17 August 2010 -- bis

A friend commented on my last blog, helped identify my bird specimen, and led me to write this about addresses out in the boonies:
Thanks for the research. While I will admit the bird you sent has a ridiculous call, it is not quite as hilarious as my specimen. Also, I believe my bird is a little less endowed in the beak. I find it interesting looking at them--from a distance.
The house numbering system is weird here too. In the city it is sequential, but bizarre. Out here in the boondocks it is basically irrelevant. Only the post office finds it "useful", apparently working off some secret info not available to us plebes.  For example, my address is 101/46 Moo 5, Khaetok, Bangsai, Ayutthaya 13190. Okay, working backwards, the zip code is what it is; Ayutthaya is the province;  Bangsai is the municipality (sort of a county, but based around some sort of "urban" agglomeration);  ayutthaya and bangsai can be found on any map.  Khaetok is the district. I have yet to find a map showing districts. Moo is "village", so we are in village 5 of our district. 101 seems to be a plot number, and 46 is our house number -- but if you ask the security for 101/46 they will look at you as if you are crazy (even if you say it in Thai). You have to ask for N46, which is the number assigned on the internal map of our housing development.
Aha you say, at least they used the 46. Yes, but no. My neighbors, where we stayed the first week, are in 102/57, known affectionately (and if you want your laundry delivered) as A29.
Some day I'll find the secret map... If it exists.

17 August 2010

Talk about using your resources!  At this moment our bedroom set is being delivered by three guys who showed up a little earlier than scheduled. They run between maybe 135 - 170 lbs, yet shlepped a bunch of heavy pieces in, of course, while taking their shoes off. They covered the floor in rugs and laid everything out to set to work.  They are about 65% done now, doing an amazing job, putting aside garbage carefully, no mess at all.  Just checked... They are almost done.  Incredibly efficient, and not a single bubba in sight (well, maybe me).
On another note, we discovered there actually is a mall in Ayutthaya, about 25 minutes away. It's not gigantic, but quite nice, anchored by Robinson, a department store chain kind of Macy-ish, and Tesco Lotus, the british chain that is a bit too walmartish for my taste, but it'll do, except for their supermarket, which I don't care for.  There's a pretty decent Se-ed bookstore, a thai chain found in many Tesco, Carrefour (french equiv) and Big C (another one) stores.
As a rule, big box stores are on the second floor with small retailers on the first, including restaurants.
Anyway, this mall is a great find.

16 August 2010

Attached is a picture of a bird I've been tracking for weeks, or at least one of his relatives. It's very common here, but not much for photos. I got as close as my BB camera zoom would allow.
This bird has got an incredibly complex and weird call, and plenty of lung power. I'm trying to find out what it is. Actually, I don't care much for birds as a rule, but they are the main form of wildlife seen here, aside from the insects and the jingjoks (little salamanders that loving living indoors, it seems).
I've seen three interesting birds (plus some pigeons and what might be sparrows): the attached guy, another bird slightly smaller with a very long tail. And the occasional crane!  Imagine, cranes!  Seen 3-4.
On another note we were in Ayutthaya city yesterday (our provincial seat and former capital until around 1767, for four or five centuries). It's loaded w ruins, courtesy of the Burmese. I think it wasn't until the 20th century that Thailand realized that Ayutthaya wasn't a junk pile but a world treasure.
Anyway, we went to a temple which houses Phra Mongkol Bophit, one of the largest bronze buddha images, and has a gigantic temple "fair" area selling food and souvenirs. Just adjacent is a small elephant show and ride area. As it was Sunday, it was packed.  And whatever is happening with the world economy, there were lots of Farangs all over Ayutthaya yesterday, along w lots of locals.  The old city of Ayutthaya is on an island surrounded by three rivers. We live SW of this area. To the E and SE is the more modern part of the city. One thing is that there aren't that many places to cross the river by car, so a straight line is rarely the shortest distance between two points.  Most large streets (in Bangkok as well) are divided in the middle, perhaps to keep drivers on their side of the road, and as a consequence there are fairly frequent u-turn spots and bridges.  The road from our house, heading south, has a junction to a main highway where you can head east or south, but not west. To go west, you have to head south to the next u-turn, swing around, and then head west. It's easier to do than to describe.
Well I'll be joining the drivers here soon, so I'll let you know how that goes.

5 August 2010

A few minutes ago, clouds slowly took over a sunny sky, and an incredible
>>> storm blew up. I can't judge wind speed,  but I'll just guess and say it
>>> was over 30 mph.  A few minutes later, the rain started coming down in
>>> buckets. After a few minutes, it morphed into a windless light shower,
>>> and
>>> that's how it is now.
>>> On my yahoo home page, I have monitored the weather of a bunch of cities
>>> that interest me, including BKK. But for at least the past few days,
>>> aside
>>> from slight variations in the highs and lows (90 F-ish and 76 F-ish), it
>>> always says "scattered thunderstorms". I guess they figure that it will
>>> always rain somewhere during the rainy season, so they play the
>>> percentages. For me, there have been fewer rainy than clear days.
>>> Yesterday we were on a bus heading from BKK back to Bangsai when it
>>> really
>>> started pouring (no wind tho). It was remarkable, and we had visions of
>>> getting our umbrella-less selves drenched when we got off the bus.
>>> However, the rain seemed to be moving in the opposite direction of the
>>> bus, and in fact it had stopped by the time we got within about 15-20 km
>>> of home.  It had cooled off enough to where I actually felt chilly on the
>>> ride in the golf cart (our "public transportation" inside the community)
>>> to our house. I have NEVER felt chilly in Bangkok.
>>> While on the same broad flat expanse as Bangkok, we have a little kinder
>>> weather. The frequent breeze cools you off (if you are not in direct
>>> sun),
>>> and it feels quite comfortable without AC, just open windows, in the
>>> morning and later in the evening.
>>> On another note, we went to Banphaen market in Sena, our closest real
>>> "town" of any kind, since "downtown" Bangsai, which is about 10km SE of
>>> here, is basically a city hall and a few houses. Sena is about 10 km N of
>>> here. Maybe 80 or 85 km from Bangkok, it might as well be 800 km or 8000
>>> even.  It seems to have little to recommend it. The market, which on
>>> Thursdays adds a fresh market to the usual shops -- a kind of flea market
>>> w lots of food -- was jam packed. Gigantic tour buses, motorcycles, and
>>> pedestrians jostled for space on the narrow winding streets.  I've been
>>> known to say that it's hard to find two parallel streets in Boston; well,
>>> compared to Sena, Boston is a model of city planning!
>>> The merchants were pleasant enough, but less friendly than you typically
>>> find in Bangkok.  I didn't make any great discoveries in the market, but
>>> I
>>> did get to look closely at a wide variety of models of small motorcyles.
>>> I did not see a single Westerner there. I suppose I'll have to give Sena
>>> another chance. We'll see.

15 June 2010

You know, I haven't been exactly thrilled about having turned 60 a few months ago.  I don't feel like sixty inside.  In fact, I keep waiting to grow up.  But there are two situations in which I know I'm getting up there: when I get up from sitting on the floor, and when I have the misfortune to see myself in the mirror.
As for sitting on the floor, well, I recounted my Sunday adventure in a previous blog.  We visited 9 temples, and I sat on the floor of every one of them, requiring that I then get up again off the floor of every one of them.
And actually, seeing myself in the mirror, or actually the reflective glass of a building on Sukhumvit Road, was what made me think about being "out there".   When I saw my reflection, I realized I looked absolutely ridiculous, in my khaki shorts, short-sleeve button down shirt, socks, and sandals.  But in fact that leads to one of the advantages of age:  one cares (or at least I care) less and less about what people think about me, or about my appearance, my behavior, etc.
In addition, there is the benefit of being a Farang in Thailand.  The Thai already expect our behavior to be strange and unpredictable.  We are admired for some of our achievements (and aped for many of our material advances) but (silently) scorned for our unrefined behavior. 
So it turns out I really don't have to care much about what people think of me or my appearance.  If you come to Thailand, you'll see men of my general appearances are a dime a dozen, and they all look pretty much as absurd as I do. But I'll get respect for being older.  And nothing I do will make me anything but a slightly weird, occasionally charming Farang.
Actually, that shtick works better here than in Southern California.

13 June 2010 report from WAY out there

And I feel saying that is justified because the only non-thai I saw all day was one Brit, and, as they say, Mad dogs and Englishmen... 
We did something ├╝ber-Thai: spent a sunday on one of the many "9 temple tour" day trips. Just pick your province, and off you go. At the bus station dedicated to this activity the different bus routes compete for your business. We opted for Lopburi, which also includes the adjacent Ang Thong (justly renowned for having nothing to do) and Saraburi, where we made our last stops including dinner.
In case you wonder how many non-thai would make this trip, let me say that everywhere we stopped were strictly old Thai style restrooms (good luck ladies, and gents hope you don't have to do number 2).  Travel was in a bus with good AC and all the water you could drink, but otherwise only passably comfortable.  The crew consisted of the driver, and a male & female host. The male was quite a riot, since everyone was laughing, but I couldn't understand much of what he said. He must have run out of Red Bull,because we didn"t hear a peep out of him after lunch.
The routine is stop at a temple, look around and pay respects, and then off to the next place. It could be 20-45 minutes. Some temples were gems; some were "please bring us some pilgrims". In every case we were warmly received and it was pretty nice.
The three highlights were the ubiquitous monkeys in Lopburi, the fantastic peacocks at wat tong pu (I think), and the famous wat pabat in Saraburi, where I discovered that Englishmen (and at least one gringo) do go out in the midday sun.
For those of you on FB, I'll upload fotos as soon as I can. Eventually I'll get them on Kodakgallery for you footdraggers.
Enough Blackberry thumbing for now. 

9 June 2010

This morning (Thursday out here in future-time land, for those of you still working out Wednesday) we will go back to the Big City. We semi-cheated yesterday by going into Rangsit, a city which is separate but attached to BKK, like Long Beach is to L.A.  There are some huge furniture, fixtures and home improvement stores there plus one pretty large mall. Also, there is a branch of Thammasat, which some consider Thailand's best university.
Speaking of universities, an interesting one is Ramkamhaeng. Established may 30 years ago (I think), it is an open university. If you're thai, the only requires to get in are to show up. No required number of classes per semester, no mandatory attendance, no mandatory homework. The final exam is 100% of your grade. While that is a clear invitation to chaos for most of us, I read that those who do manage to graduate turn out to be people w great self-discipline, focus, and drive.  Students at other schools are used to being told what to do. That's not conducive to independent thinking, something which is a bit in short supply here.  It seems the pre-(?)University levels here are still more oriented to rote learning, and the hierarchical nature of relationships here is not conducive to arguing w your teachers. I've heard foreign teachers express frustration at this.  It's not that thai students aren't smart or don't have opinions, as it could appear. But they feel constrained to keep opinions to themselves depending on their audience.
Actually (here's one for rote learning), people in shops or big stores are incredibly full of knowledge about their area of responsibility. In HomePro (like Home Depot, but without the warehouse-jeans & t-shirt feel), the young guy helping us look at kitchen counters was both a fount of knowledge and a creative thinker.  It's tends to be easy to get service in stores because they are much more heavily staffed than we usually see in the U.S.  I admit that is probably due to very low salaries. But that's another thing: no one here let's his/her salary level interfere w the level of service provided.
I tell you, it is LOUD in the "outback". The tiniest bird and even the damn jingjok (tiny salamanders who provide organic insect control) have stentorian voices. I cannot here the sound of a single motor or any kind now. Later there will be plenty, as some houses here are still under construction, but for now the sounds are probably the same as they were, say, 500 years ago.

7 June 2010

Excuse the impersonal email. I wanted to share some observations with friends and family, so here goes...
We're spending a couple of days in Bangsai, where we will soon be living. We're borrowing a friend's house right now. It's a 3 minute walk from our house, which is not quite ready inside.
It's really noisy here: no, not a single automobile (we're at least 1 km back from the highway). But birdcalls, other animal sounds (don't ask don't tell!).  I don't know anything about birdcalls, but I'm pretty sure I heard a woodpecker, not calling, but pecking.  Also, the mosquitos are very affectionate, showing their bloodthirsty love by kissing me repeatedly. I didn't return the favor.
It's very green here. The temperature, I would guess, is in the mid 70's (it's about 6.45 now) w fairly high humidity. It's actually quite pleasant.
I'll try to attach a foto from the back porch. Enough for now. It's torture typing all this on the blackberry.